Teaching to the test, a concept that has dominated many headlines and classrooms in recent years, has brought awareness to the teacher’s constant struggle: do I focus on the process of learning or the product of assessment? Which is most important to a student’s education, and on an equally important note, which will keep me employed? And why am I forced to choose when both seem essential? Although many classroom teachers are only recently feeling the pressure of proving their teaching is worthwhile through high test scores, theatre educators have struggled for years with the best way to show administrators, teachers, and communities just what those kids have been learning all those weeks in drama class. Sure, it’s fun, but what real value does theatre hold? When it comes to process v. product in theatre, it’s either a brilliant show or a no go.
For those who cringe at the thought of drilling young artists until they are perfect performers, the easy answer is to fight for process over product when it comes to theatre education. Dramatic work can teach young people invaluable, transferable skills such as empathy, team-building, public speaking, analysis, and self confidence. Sure, their rendition of The Music Man may have been a little painful to watch, but each young actor gained insight into relating to others, tricks that can be used in interviews for future positions, or the key to self-expression. Like so many other classroom experiences, the process of learning how instead of just what is integral. Lev Dodin, the Artistic Director of Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg,described it this way: “If we compare industry and art: in industry the value is in the result; you produce a thing and they pay you for what you have produced; in art the value is not in the result but rather in the process” (Neelands, 2009). Young artists will find important life lessons in the process of play-making, as well as the skills they need to continue in theater.
However, the easy answer isn’t necessarily the wisest. In all the hurry to stick up for process-based work, many educators overlook the significance of product. No, not every performance will be shiny and jaw-dropping, but there is something to be said for students succeeding on the stage. Those of us who have performed know the thrill of excited whispers backstage, the stomach-dropping feeling when the lights first come up, the ecstasy at the first audience laugh. These are the moments that keep us in theatre when we’re young. Besides, performance, whether it’s in front of aunts, uncles, and godparents or just in front of a class of peers, is important when it comes to seeing just how much our students have learned. Every classroom teacher knows assessment, however tedious, is essential when it comes to learning. What is a goal if you never know if you’ve reached it? Performance isn’t the only thrill of theatre, but it is what kids will remember as the years roll merrily along. Yes, they also learned to be better, more articulate, more discerning people in the process. But we’ll just keep that between you and me.
Balance, like in so much of life, is what makes it all work. Theatre education can’t just be a factory churning out Broadway hopefuls, but it also can’t always be sharing circles and silly walks. If both process and product go hand in hand, kids can grow through dramatic play while still reaching goals and showing off all their new skills for mom, dad, and principal alike. The product doesn’t have to be (and oftentimes shouldn’t be) a show. I am a strong believer of drama integration into all classroom curriculum, which means the product may be a test, paper, or short performance students create to demonstrate their learning through drama. If theatre educators are transparent about exactly what they are trying to achieve through the use of drama, if they balance process with a few products, it will be hard for students, administrators, or parents to deny the benefits of injecting drama into any learner’s journey.
Neelands, J. (2009). Acting together: ensemble as a democratic process in art and life. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theater and Performance, 14, 173-189.